PLATTSBURGH — The North Country’s rich history dates back to well before Americans and British fought on the shores of Lake Champlain and even beyond Samuel de Champlain’s discovery of the lake four centuries ago.
Humans have called the region home well before history began cataloging their activities. Our prehistoric ancestors lived along the shores of what used to be a saltwater sea 13,000 years ago, the precursor of what would become the lake as we know it.
Chris Wolff, an assistant professor of archaeology in Plattsburgh State’s Department of Anthropology, is attempting to piece together details about what life was like for early inhabitants of our region. He is seeking help from area residents in his quest for knowledge.
“There is such a rich cultural history in this region, both historic and prehistoric,” Wolff said. “My main interest in the study of the past is how did humans interact with the lake and the environment? How did they survive?”
Prehistoric humans in northeastern New York faced at least one concept that may sound similar today: climate change.
One volatile era, Wolff said, saw the North Country covered by tundra, with the glaciers of the Ice Age just to the north.
“How did they respond to the changing environment?” he wondered. “What was it like living on the Sea of Champlain with a marine environment? It’s an interesting puzzle, and I’d like to get people involved in what has happened across the centuries.”
Wolff first came to Plattsburgh State in the summer of 2011 following a stint as staff archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Although he, himself, is still learning about the rich heritage this region has to offer anyone interested in past civilizations, he has jumped into his research head first, renewing an archaeology dig that began on the Allen Homestead in Peru two decades ago.
“The property owners have given us materials collected from those earlier digs to put in our lab,” he said. “Now, students and I are cataloging those items to determine what different cultures may have lived there.
“The next step will be to see if there’s anything else at the site,” he added. “We’ll go out and open some more units, dig into the past.”
The area of interest sits along a dry riverbed that at one time flowed to Lake Champlain, allowing residents of the time to paddle upstream to their settlement and back to the lake, which was one source of food, though artifacts confirm that a staple of their diet was white-tailed deer.
Wolff sees potential for similar research across the region, including opportunities to provide hands-on activities for students in the college’s archaeology program.
But most importantly, he believes, is the opportunity to reach out to the community and promote the region’s heritage beyond the ever-popular focus on historical events after Champlain’s arrival.
“As a trained archaeologist, I have an obligation to educate the community about the context of past civilizations,” he said, “about what the artifacts we find mean in context to where they were found and what they were used for.”
Wolff would like to establish a network to bring together professional archaeologists and community researchers.
“It’s the people who live here who know the most about the community,” he said. “Those people may have treasures in their attics that can be an answer to the questions we have (about past cultures).”
Wolff began developing an interest in archaeology as a youngster living on a farm in the Texas panhandle. He was always intrigued by ancient relics he would find while working on the farm, and that curiosity eventually blossomed into a career that has led him to Newfoundland, the Arctic and now northeastern New York in his quest for understanding the past.
“I know how artifacts can be of interest to people,” he said. “But when they are taken out of context, there is no way of learning more about them.
“I’d like to work with people, document what they have,” he added. “I don’t want to take anything away from people; I’d like to learn (from the artifacts) and help the owners learn, as well.”
Wolff will be setting up a website for people to access and respond electronically to a survey about any possible artifacts they may have come across. He also envisions developing a working network where people will get together, share their ideas and continue to put together the pieces of the puzzle depicting the past.
To learn more, email Plattsburgh State Assistant Professor Chris Wolff at cwolf006